Prose introduces her book as “the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.”
Reading Like A Writer talks about close reading, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraphing, plots, creating characters and so on, through many examples from the masterpieces. However, to me, this book itself is a great place to start practising close reading. Prior to reading this book, I find myself drawn to languages: at first Chinese (my mother-tongue, unfortunately I do not converse, read or write in Chinese nowadays but no doubt that I could re-gain that capability if so wish), and later particularly English which although not my first language it is the one that I think, dream, read, speak and write most comfortably. The English language delights me in many ways. It is hard to clearly depict which portion of my fondness for English is owed to the English culture and which to the language itself. Most people probably would agree that culture and its language are inseparable. I love the English language for the freedom to explore, its non-judgemental attitude, the beauty of its words and compositions, the subtleties, and its lyrical and descriptive power. Reading Like a Writer shows me how to read closely and learn from the masterpieces. Prose’s own analysis and writings about the cited works are great to read slowly word to word. The precision of the choice of words, how she structures her sentences and conveys her opinions are all wonderful to note. It opens my mind and allows me to view the works in English more in-depth with detailed dissection, which brings more joy than would otherwise have been available, for example by reading for the storyline alone.
The book itself contains eleven chapters, including close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narrations, characters, dialogues, details, gestures, learning from Chekhov, and finally reading for courage. It is such a brilliant book that I run the risk of citing most of it if I attempt to cover the full book here. For brevity, here I only share with you three topics from the book, close reading, characters and the last one reading for courage.
For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.
Like most – maybe all – writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.
Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?
In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.
This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.
Writing about the school assignment she was given to study the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear: Long before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see and deny what was right in front of one’s eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent – all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.
We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.
Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. There were chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly.
Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.
Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.
I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.
To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.
Close reading helped me figure out, as I hoped it did for my students, a way to approach a difficult aspect of writing, which is nearly always difficult….They are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.
Chapter six discusses about how to portray characters, using the exemplar characters from The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot and Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.
Here is the first sentence from Kleist’s The Marquise of O: “In M—, a large town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children, published the following notice in the newspapers: that, without her knowing how, she was in the family way; that she would like the father of the child she was going to bear to report himself; and that her mind was made up, out of consideration for her people, to marry him.”
An excerpt from Prose’s analysis about Kleist’s writing: Among the unusual things about the way that Kleist creates his characters is that he does so entirely without physical description. There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise’s appearance. We never hear how a room looks, or what the latest fashion might be, or what people are eating and drinking. We assume that the Marquise is beautiful, perhaps because her presence exerts such an immediate and violent effect on the Russian soldier that he loses all control and turns from an angel into devil. But we can only surmise that.
Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are – often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart – and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys. He has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.
Through the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen showed us. Using dialogue to establish the character, to delineate the personalities of the speakers, and to acquaint us with the people whom they are speaking about.
The portraying of characters of Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch is very different from the very minimalistic way that the Marquise and the Count were portrayed, more accurately, inferred by the readers in The Marquise of O. George Eliot wrote so well that after reading Middlemarch years ago, the mentioning of the two characters still arouse some anger and frustration for me. Reading the book as a young girl, I felt furious by Dorothea’s blindness of her own value and willingness to be manipulated by Casaubon who is purely self-centered and completely lack of any sense of love or passion towards other human beings. Perhaps that opinion of mine was only valid for that period of being very young and having black-and-white views of the world, and most likely I will see new perspectives if I were to read Middlemarch again.
Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is discussed in depth in this chapter too, particularly the protagonist Frederic. I have not read this book. Two short pieces quoted from the book below delight me enough for it to be added to my reading list.
Frederic Moreau: “The happiness which his nobility of soul deserved was slow in coming”.
In describing Frederic’s thoughts while observing Mrs Arnoux: “He had never seen anything to compare with her splendid dark skin, her ravishing figure, or her delicate, translucent fingers. He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were something out of the ordinary. What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; and even the desire for physical possession gave way to a profounder yearning, a poignant curiosity which knew no bounds.”
Reading for Courage
Most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.
All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.
Literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.
Writers have often found it a little too easy to make the reader sympathize with characters who are beautiful and true and good, a little too simple to make us care about the innocent and the charitable. How much more of a challenge it is to attempt what Dostoyevsky accomplished in Crime and Punishment. We might not automatically expect to empathize with Raskolnikov, a student who brutally kills two old women. So what an achievement it represents not only to make us care about him but also to find ourselves hoping, just as he does, that he can be redeemed.
Discussing the pressure on writers to create likeable characters rather than realistic ones, Prose quoted the following passages from Gogol’s Dead Souls on the different fates of writers who create angels and those we describe human beings:
“Happy is the writer who omits there dull and repulsive characters that disturb one by being so painfully real… The delicious mist of the incense he burns dims human eyes; the miracle of his flattery masks all the sorrows of life and depicts only the goodness of man … He is called a great universal poet, soaring high above all other geniuses of the world even as an eagle soars above other high flying creatures. The mere sound of his name sounds a thrill through ardent young hearts; all eyes greet him with radiance and responsive tears…
But a different lot and another fate awaits the writer who has dared to evoke all such things that are constantly before one’s eyes…the shocking morass of trifles that has tied up our lives, and the essence of cold, crumbling, humdrum characters with whom our earthly way, now bitter, now dull, fairly swarms…Not for him will be the applause, no grateful tears will he see … not to him will a girl of sixteen come flying, her head all awhirl with heroic fervour. Not for him will be that sweet enchantment when a poet hears nothing but the harmonies he has engendered himself; and finally, he will not escape the judgement of his time, the judgement of hypocritical and unfeeling contemporaries who will accuse the creatures his mind has bred of being base and worthless, will allow a contemptible nook for him in the gallery of those authors who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the morals of his own characters, and will deny him everything, heart, soul, and the divine flame of talent.”
There is no doubt how great amount of courage it takes to write truthfully and realistically instead of pleasingly. Further from Prose, reading can give you the courage to resist all of the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way, or to follow a prescribed form. It can even persuade you that it might not be necessary to give your novel or story a happy ending….Nor, you may discover, is it necessary to have an ending in which every loose thread is neatly tied up, every problem solved, and the characters tracked into the future as far as the mind’s eyes can see. To quote Chekhov one more time, here is the ending of the Lady with the Dog, an ending which, I have always thought, could serve as the final few lines of every work of modern fiction. As the story concludes, the aging adulterous lovers are contemplating their future.
“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.”
Talking about bad writing days, Prose quoted William Burroughs: the temptation to tear up your work in little pieces and throw it in someone else’s wastepaper basket. She carries on: reading a masterpiece may be even less of a consolation when you first figure out, or are reminded for the thousandth time, of how much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terror pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place.
My own experience of writing are mostly confined to technical topics, such as theses, technical papers and books. My creative writing is very limited. Reflecting on my experience of reading, Prose’s words above resonate in me. The solitude of reading in general, the stubbornness of chewing some passages dozens of times to think of and beyond the original intention, the strange yet mighty inner calling to wake up in the small hours and read during weekends. All these lead to a very abnormal life to others. Perhaps the big consolation for me is that, although my aim is high, I do not worry whether my reading and writing are indeed perceived as good by anyone, at least not yet. It is a lot of labor but full of great pleasure for me. A piece of writing from Isaac Babel quoted in the book talks about the hard labor of revision:
“I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it…I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetition, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything … I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel … I take out all the participles and adverbs I can … Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless … A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun … Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard … But the most important thing of all … is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is … We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.”
At the end of the book, Prose lists the books to be read immediately for us. This list is available at the book’s wikipedia page. However, I did not verify the correctness of all titles on this page. Overall speaking, this book broadened my horizon of literature, reading and writing practices. Prose has done her part excellently of teaching us read like a writer in this book. It is up to us who have read the book to practice the art.